June 7, 2013

PLF urges Pennsylvania Supreme Court to restore the proper level of products liability

By Anastasia P. Boden Attorney

Today PLF filed an amicus brief in Tincher v. Omega arguing that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should determine whether manufacturers are liable for injuries caused by defectively designed products under a negligence standard.  Pennsylvania is notorious for litigation abuse—although thanks to a strong push for tort reform in that state, this year California displaced it as the worst place for civil justice in the nation.  Adopting a negligence standard would be another positive development in the law, and particularly, products liability law—where state courts overwhelmingly favor plaintiffs.

In Tincher, Omega was found liable when a lightning strike energized Omega steel piping that provided natural gas to the Tincher’s home, and set fire to the property. The lower court found Omega liable even though it agreed Omega had not been negligent, and had exercised due care in the design of its product.  It did so because the court used the legal theory of “strict liability.”  Under the theory of strict liability, a manufacturer will be found liable for any injuries caused by an unreasonably dangerous product.  Under the theory of negligence, a manufacturer will be found liable only if their product’s risk of harm could have been reduced if they had used a reasonable alternative design—a higher standard for plaintiffs to prove.

Omega asked the Supreme Court to consider adopting Section 2 of the Restatement (Third): Products Liability, which replaces strict liability with the theory of negligence in cases like this.

PLF argues that Pennsylvania products liability law needs reform because the courts’ application of strict liability for design defects is particularly egregious.  Pennsylvania courts have applied strict liability in a way that imposes liability merely for causing an injury, regardless of whether the product was unreasonably dangerous or not.  Such a system, PLF argues, is unfair, and inefficient as a matter of policy. PLF advocates adopting Section 2 in order to restore the proper level of liability in products liability law.

Many of the sitting justices have long criticized Pennsylvania products liability law for being unclear and incoherent.  We wait to see if the Court will seize this opportunity to bring reform to the law.

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